Toni Blessing served eight years as a petty officer in the U.S. Navy, and he loved his job. He would also love to re-enlist, not only for the camaraderie but also for the steady paycheck and reliable benefits. That last part is especially important because Blessing and his partner are now raising a son and could certainly use the consistent health insurance.
When Blessing left the service in December 2004, fellow crewmen referred to him as “the ideal sailor,” Blessing said, and he boasted a stellar service record. During his exit interview, Blessing’s commanding officer said he couldn’t understand why someone like him was getting out of the service and asked for an explanation.
“I told him I’m transgender, and unfortunately the military sees that as a problem,” said Blessing. “I need to live my life as who I am, and I can’t be me and be in the Navy.”
As the rest of the country commemorates the first year of open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, transgender soldiers still serve in silence. While “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal opened the door for LGB service members, the U.S. military considers transgender identity to be a mental health disorder that makes one ineligible to serve.
Despite these hurdles, transgender people do manage to serve in our nation’s Armed Forces. The Advocate spoke to several of these soldiers, on condition of anonymity, to protect their continued service.
Andy is a trans man and Army Major who is on active duty in the Active Guard Reserves. Military policy means he has “to work so hard to have to be a female, and it would be so much easier to just be who I am, and be a guy."
But it’s not like the institution is entirely oblivious to what’s happening. Those who’ve successfully served while trans say there is a difference, for example, in how gender non-conforming women are treated from gender non-conforming men in the military.
“I think there’s more of a turning of a blind eye,” said Andy. “Because people kind of just identify you as a butch lesbian, or just an effeminate man that’s gay. It’s OK to be gay [since DADT was repealed], so it’s easier to blend in.”
“I’d like to say that there’ve been more positive [attitudes] toward any aspect of feminine-based personality traits [since DADT repeal],” said Jennifer, a trans woman and Army Sergeant who is serving in the southeastern U.S. “But when it comes to the military, it’s still very much a hypermasculine, macho-based ideology.”
Blessing, for his part, was out as trans to several of his fellow sailors. When he began taking testosterone and growing facial hair a few months before his separation, he asked his shipmates to help teach him how to shave. They happily obliged, he said. “We had a shave party with all these enlisted Navy guys, in a house on base,” recalls Blessing.
While some service members risked coming out as trans to their fellow soldiers, most wouldn’t suggest taking that chance. The National Center for Transgender Equality recommends that trans service members understand the consequences if they choose to come out while in uniform.